When I was a child I thought Orzo (or κριθαράκι) was actually a seed, like rice or a very special type of barley because in Greek and Italian Orzo or κριθαράκι actually means ‘little pearl of barley’! The second least obvious reason to anyone who might not have seen or eaten orzo is its shape. The pasta looks like a seed and is many times cooked like risotto, added to ingredients that have already been cooked long enough to release flavours and juices (soffrito or slow roasts).
Orzo returned to my kitchen when I picked up a pack of a Misco κριθαράκι at the Deli counter of Pipi’s café in Cardiff and has since been the basic ingredient for many improvised meals this year. It has been the impromptu but exciting pasta dressed in a chilly infused yet simple red tomato sauce for long catch ups and film nights with my wonderful Wendy (AKA Dr Dodds). It has lined our stomach with starchy satisfaction at the end of wine mellowed evenings with Elpida (cousin and friend extrordinaire). A variation of the recipe has seen this dish turn into a pasta bake topped with strong cheddar. It provided the basic ingredient for simple salads flavoured with cooked young spinach leaves, pine nuts, fresh parmesan and pepper that welcomed unexpected guests stopping by to pay us a visit. Recently in the Γιουβέτσι (giouvetsi) dish that I wrote about recently orzo has reclaimed its Greek traditional use in my cooking!
The return to cooking with orzo pasta definitely pointed out an iterative journey to dishes and recipes that I have grown up with and characterise my Greek identity. I realised that this cooking itinerary from experimentation to solid basics has been repeating itself and in a symbolic way it sums me up: the alchemy of flavours, ingredients and recipes from the micro cultures of Greece to new tastes and worldly “cuisines” that have rubbed off on me in the 14 years away from the birth land. Innovation and reinterpretation at once but with once common characteristic: each time this cooking iteration returns to deep routed sensory memories and recipes that will always be part of me.
I have always refused to be mindlessly patriotic, I actually despise manifestations of national delirium and at times have fearfully rejected national symbols but I soon realised that there is a difference between cultural awareness and nationalism. The one embraces and mixes whilst the other puts up solid walls and preaches parochialism, albeit it with the same cultural reference . And one of the ways that I have come to love and appreciate my culture (in its emerging hybridity) is through cooking.
Thinking about all this today has made me reassured and happy in realising that I have not forgotten who I am and that I am becoming who I want to be: my own filter of tastes, experiencses and cultures.
Follow this link for more on simple Orzo inspired recipes.
 Orza! In the context used here means ‘go ahead’ or ‘sail on’ and is used as a phrase of encouragement in Greek. The word is latin and translates to luff in English and actually means to sail closer in to the wind (particularly when a vessels sail is flapping).
In mid September and soon after I returned from Western Crete, where we tried a variety of goat meat recipes, I noticed the Pantypwyddyn Farm stall at the Saturday farmers’ market in Roath sells wild goat. It was a meaty wild goat leg on the bone that had me looking for a Roast Goat spaghetti recipe otherwise known as γιουβέτσι (giouvetsi) in Greek. Even though the goat meat version of giouvetsi is one of my favourite dishes I had never cooked it before this September but have since added it to our monthly ‘meat’ treats much to the delight of Mr Green.
Γιουβέτσι (giouvetsi) is a term used in Greek cuisine for roast meat-and-pasta dishes that are cooked slowly in an oven pot. Γιουβέτσι seems to literally translate ‘roast’ in English but I have not been very successful with this word’s accurate translation, origin or etymology and must keep searching for its roots, history and journey into the Greek cuisine and language. One thing’s for sure the word has been adopted well in Greek cuisine and is just synonymous with the dish!
Γιουβέτσι (giouvetsi) is traditionally cooked in an oven pot called γάστρα(gastra) a term that literally translates to ‘belly’ or a ‘ship’s hull’. In cooking terms it is (traditionally) a clay oven pot for slow cooking but there are many modern versions made of metal and do the job well. Στη γάστρα (in the gastra) in every dayuse is a phrase that describes dishes and their method of slow oven cooking, particularly for meat, even if electrical or gas ovens are used instead of a traditional wood-fire oven or a fire over which the clay or ‘other material’ pot was placed; you will come across it in many restaurants and taverns in Greece.
The pasta used most commonly in giouvetsi, particularly for the veal or beef version of the dish, is orzo (κριθαράκι) but spaghetti is more commonly used for the lamb and goat on-the-bone versions of the recipe. Many cook books and blogs suggest adding tomato, onion, bay leaves, garlic and cinnamon sticks together with 2-3 cups of hot water to the goat or lamb whilst it roasts to help prepare the stock for the pasta to cook at end of the cooking time. There are many versions that I read and talked about recently but here is what I have tried in the past two months.
For my goat giouvesti recipe I used juice of a lemon, thyme, olive oil, salt and pepper to marinade the goat (about 700 gr of meat on the bone) and added a bit of boiling water (nearly a cup), some bay leaves and a bit of sweet paprika to the pot to prepare the stock for the pasta whilst the meat roasted. I slow cooked the goat on the bone for around 2 hours, a bit longer than the suggested time (30 min per 0.5 Kg+20min). By that time the meat was ‘falling’ off the bone so in this case I removed the meat from the pot for the second part of the recipe. The second part took 20 minutes, and required some more water added (1-2 boiling hot cups) and half or one packet of spaghetti. I deliberately stirred the pasta a couple of times whilst it was cooking in the oven and instead pouring both two cups of water at once I added them gradually to make sure the pasta absorbs all the liquid. I didn’t really need to adjust the seasoning but still added some more pepper as I really like the peppery taste of the pasta with the goat.
For today’s lamb giouvetsi I used a leg of lamb (1kg) bought at the Sunday Riverside Farmer’s Market, again from the Pantypwyddyn Farm stall to make a variation of the goat recipe, an uplifting treat to our flu and cough tortured souls and bodies (we have had enough soup already!). I ‘hid’ whole garlic cloves in the leg of lamb (about 5) and marinated it in lemon juice and olive oil, rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper. For the stock I started as before but after 1 hour and 15 minutes of roasting I added some passata tomato (half to one cup), another cup of boiling water and two small cinnamon sticks. And about 15 minutes later I added about 250gr of orzo pasta that slow cooked for 20 minutes. It was good I checked half way through the pasta cooking as all the water was all gone and I had to add a bit more (about on cup). This time I did not remove the meat from the oven dish for the second part of the recipe. And just like that (admittedly after 2.5 hours) we tucked in the most delicious lamb recipe I have cooked. Tried and tested – this dish is guaranteed to be a success.
Note to all Cardiff Farmer market regulars: Whilst there is no guarantee you will get goat at Saturday Roath Market, and you can replace it with lamb, the stall holders told me goat is growing in popularity. So do keep an eye out for it, ask the stall holder if he has any in the farm fridge because they can bring some along to Sunday’s Riverside Market and …make sure you give me a shout too! I do prefer the goat meat because of its leanness, prefer its texture and find it more flavoursome than lamb.
There is always that takeaway dish that we all keep ordering again and again in the most unadventurous repetitive manner. That Indian takeaway dish for me is not a balti or a korma and I even managed to overcome my obsession with chicken shatkora, a Bangladeshi specialty flavoured with the exotic shatkora fruit, otherwise known as citrus macroptera or as I prefer to call it ‘ wild orange’.
But I am not going to talk about the culinary potential of the shatokora and its tantalizing combinations with chicken and mutton today because most recently my favourite takeaway dish and inspiration for this recipe is king prawn nawabi bahar. Apart from its taste I am also intrigued by its name. Nawabs were the regional rulers of East Indian provinces and from the little information I can find on the internet they are described as connoisseurs of fine dining. I am not quite sure about the meaning of bahar butin Persian the word translates to ‘spring’ and it also seems to be used as a name in Iran and Turkey. The word also seems to have been used to describe a unit in the trading system that stretched from the ports of China, the East Indies, India and eastern Africa. To me bahar sounds like the words μπαχάρι (bahari) or μπαχάρια/μπαχαρικά (baharia/baharika) the first one of which we use in Greece to describe allspice or pimento berries , which should not be confused with the allspice powder mixture used in Britain or the red pimento peppers of Spain. The second word, μπαχάρια/μπαχρικά (baharia/baharika), is used to describe (aromatic) spices in Greek. So there could be a connection as I imagine that there was spice trade in the ports of China, the East Indies, India and eastern Africa that someone I am sure had to measure in some unit possibly called bahar? Any views on this? In my mind, and in the context of food and this recipe, it may be that the word bahar signifies the generous amount of fragrant spices used in the dish.
Whatever the secret spice recipe of my local takeaway may be I am mostly taken by the combination of aubergines and king prawns in a light sauce dish that is almost ‘dry’ but moist enough to flavour the meaty prawns in their shell. So when a couple of days ago I stopped at ‘World foods’, my local corner store and cornucopia of spices and exotic foods, a basket full with small light violet aubergines, fresh, firm and about 10 centimeters long , caught my attention and had me thinking about making my own version of nawabi bahar. I love this tiny little shop that is always busy but somehow still fits all of us in at the same time. In its tightly but neatly packed space World Foods also fits a halal butcher, a greengrocery corner and a fish and seafood freezer something that made things really convenient last Wednesday as I grabbed all my essential ingredients, the ‘baby’ aubergine 8-10), king prawns (500gr net weight), tomatoes, onions , and was ready to cook a few minutes after leaving the shop.
I committed two ‘crimes’ in preparation of this dish that I would like to confess. First I bought frozen king prawns the destination of which I cannot confirm and that makes me feel bad about the possible unacceptable method in which they were caught. But I have chosen to be honest in this cooking journal and despite my best intentions I do not always buy as local and green as I should and would like. My second confession is about the quick defrosting method of the prawns that many cooking experts will frown upon. I simply had to fill and refill a pot with warm water and immerse the bag of prawns in it to defrost. If you are not too careful with the water temperature this could par cook your prawns that could lead into over cooking them later.
When I started cooking I was not in the mood for generous doses of baharia (spices) as I wanted to focus on the tender aubergine and prawn combination. So when I fried a large onion in a bit of olive oil in low heat I only added a bit of salt and some ground coriander. I tossed in the small walnut size aubergine chunks I cut the fruit in, fried for a few minutes with the onions and then added four crashed garlic cloves. I added the 4-6 medium sized ripe tomatoes, especially ‘soft’ and selected for sauce, blitzed in my minipimer blender (otherwise known as my kitchen chopper!) before the garlic burned. Sugar (not more than a tablespoon), more salt, some ginger power and more ground coriander also went in. I would have loved some lime in this but as I had note the juice of a lemon was a great substitue and an addition that I think is essential. In terms of sauce quantity, I simply aimed to have enough to give the thirsty aubergines some juice to cook in and be left with enough to quickly cook the prawns in. I don’t think this is one of the rich and plentiful sauce dishes that you dip your naan bread in.
Despite my initial instinct to keep this dish simple, I was suddenly convinced it needed cinnamon and something else, but what? I dreamingly gazed over my racks of spices and the colorful jars decorating my wall as well as taking up most of the space of one of my small kitchen cupboards. Allspice, the kind that is used in Britain and mixture of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves, appeared boldly behind a harissa jar! Tata! It joined the sauce with a bit more coriander powder. By the time the aubergines had simmered in the tomatoes and onions sauce (for about 15 minutes or maybe 20) it was time to add a taste of the sea. In less than 10 minutes after the shell-on king prawns went in (about 20 of them or about 500gr) my desired aubergine and prawn meal was ready, satisfying and tasty, and served on a bowl of white and red quinoa, as a healthier alternative to rice.
Portabella mushrooms filled with lentils and beans.
For Hannah Briggs with whom I have been ‘full of beans’ most of the winter gone!
When I started this blog I had every intention to give out ‘real time’ recipes and to record the wonderful moments of congregation at the end of a week day and at the waking of the weekend.
Well I have not done it and recently I had a random conversation about this blog and my idea of how it was going to work. I think I laughed out loud at the sound of the words describing yet another regime that I was imposing to myself! (as if there are not enough constraints structures, rules and norms in life). “What about sharing memories, recipes and stories of now and then?” I thought, and my mind was immediately greeted with beautiful memories like the ones I had just shared in my conversation.
So the first memory I want to share is one of a late February midweek evening, during the period of what I call the deep winter ‘blues’ , when I usually have had ENOUGH of the dark and cold days. Perhaps I am sharing a winter story to help you appreciate your UK summer, however rainy it has been today, or to cool down those of you suffering in heat. Or perhaps I am just doing it because I am very fond of this particular moment and the people I shared it with.
It was the end of a long tiring day, one of those when you don’t see the sunrise because you left for work too early and you don’t see the daylight because you return home too late from meetings in dark rooms and stuffy spaces. Inexplicably last February I switched to a detox ‘spring clean’ mode with real cravings for pulses, ‘meaty’ mushrooms, spinach, strong cheese and an aversion to red meat and poultry. I’d stopped at the green grocer on Albany road on my way home where the glimpse of some beautiful portabella mushrooms got me salivating. Suddenly, I was in THAT special place where my mind, heart and stomach come together to dream up a recipe and soon I was happily heading home stocked up with fresh basil, two tins of organic cooked cannellini beans and puy lentils, some Welsh goats cheese, a wedge of parmesan, ripe tomatoes, onions and peppers. Filled mushrooms with yummy pulses was the vision!
Dan, Hannah, my lovely friend who was staying with me at the time, and I arrived at my house one after the other within a couple of minutes with impeccable timing. We all looked tired and famished. It had been the kind of cold day that made you desperate for comfort and warmth. We turned on a dimmed light and started cooking to Richie Havens’ soothing deep voice and guitar strumming.
For our ‘feel good’ mushroom dish we fried an onion (or 2?) in low heat until translucent and then added a sliced red pepper, followed by many cloves of garlic (at least 3) and chopped ripe tomatoes (2 medium tomatoes or 6 or so cherry or small plum tomatoes). Once all of these were stir fried we added the strained beans and puy lentils and stirred in the heated pan until all the juices evaporated. Before we added the Welsh goats cheese we reduced the temperature to very low , added a generous amount of young spinach leaves, watched them ‘wither’ before deciding whether we should add more, more of which we did add, and finally seasoned with a generous amount of freshly ground pepper.
Next we grilled the large portabella mushrooms. I picked large and ‘deep’ mushrooms so that I could fill them with a generous amount of the bean and lentil mixture. Before the mushrooms were grilled we removed the stem – and placed carefully in our mouths. To make preparation faster we grilled the mushrooms in a non-stick pan. Adding a little bit of olive oil and some water (a couple of teaspoons) avoided burning the mushrooms and helped cook them quicker until soft enough to eat but firm enough to hold a good portion of the filling.
In the meantime to make this dish even more interesting in texture and to add a crunchy finish I decided to prepare a top crust with the parmesan, basil and some breadcrumbs. In a chopper I whizzed most (at least half) of the parmesan wedge, a whole bunch of basil, and breadcrumbs together.
And finally it all came together in a baking tray where we placed the mushrooms (about 6) with their bottom side up for filling, added the lentils and beans mixture and topped it with the parmesan crumble before placing under the grill for a golden and crunchy finish.
Dan roasted some sun flower and pumpkin seeds for our mixed leaves salad whilst I prepared the usual balsamic vinegar vinaigrette, with olive oil, honey or maple syrup, salt and pepper. Don’t ask me about measurements it is a real weakness of mine. Just add the ingredients in a jar, shake joyfully, taste and adjust. I usually go overboard with the balsamic and always have to adjust but it works nonetheless. We tossed the salad leaves to mix the dressing and topped it with the roasted seeds and with a good serving of the golden mushrooms filled with bean and lentil goodness we shed our tiredness and frustration.
What took half an hour for the three of us to prepare was gone in a just a few minutes. And with a big sigh of relief, after humming to the music and enjoying the experience of eating in her usual jovial manner, Ms Briggs smiled at me and said: ‘ I ‘ve bean fed!’.
But tonight is special as Hannah’s boyfriend, Trevor, is added to our company. Hannah and I join forces in the kitchen to cook up a feast. Hannah and Trevor love the flavours of the orient, so I decide to prepare Amok fish, the Cambodian curry that stole the culinary limelight during my recent stay in Siem Reap. And Hannah is making a chocolate and pear tart for desert (for which she credit’s Jamie Oliver).
Focaccia and humus are spread on the table to silence our rumbling bellies, whilst we cook and savour every moment of the easy atmosphere and effortless interaction.
While Dan and Trevor fill the house with music and chatter, Hannah’s preparation of the tart distracts my senses with the aroma of melting chocolate, butter and eggs (and is that almond? Yum!). She lays and precooks the short crust pastry in a silicon cake tin (because we have not tart tin), and then she prepares the sauce skilfully.
In the other corner, ginger, chillies, lemongrass, lime rind, kaffir lime leaves and garlic are chopped and blitzed into amok curry paste together with fish sauce, shrimp paste, sesame oil, paprika, turmeric and peanuts. I mix a bit of the paste with a couple of tablespoons of coconut milk to marinate the chunky pieces of river cobbler in preparation of the dish. Next I put on the Thai fragrant rice to slowly shimmer to its sticky consistency. And after that I partly boil some curly kale for the curry. Finally, I prepare the curry sauce. I decide to add to the flavour by frying an onion in sesame oil and then adding the well strained kale. Before I let the sauce simmer, I add the rest of the curry paste and coconut milk and cream. My secret ingredients are Campot pepper and an amok fish curry powder that I brought back from Cambodia. I think it mainly consists of turmeric and dried galangal.
Whilst the sauce simmers on low heat, I cook the marinated cobbler in a non stick pan for no more than 4 minutes and remove from heat. The heat of the pan continues to cook the fish and I don’t want the fish to flake when I add it to the curry sauce.
I love mixing up the spices into a familiar concoction, whilst listening to the conversation around the table. Trevor’s design project, Dan’s Big Little City, Hannah’s stories of old mariners and barges.
At the same time I travel back to the moment that I taste the best amok fish curry cooked by Auntie Pow at the Arun restaurant in Siem Riep. I close my eyes to bring up the memory of its flavour and then dip a spoon in the sauce to test the match. I add some fresh organic spinach to change its consistency and some more paprika and turmeric to adjust the flavour. Mission accomplished: the flavour is a match.
Dan’s kiss lures me out of the creative bliss. He then whips two eggs and stirs them in the sauce to thicken and complete it. As I add the pre cooked fish we gently stir, cover and remove from the heat.
Hannah’s pear and chocolate tart looks beautifully spread. Slices of pear adorn the chocolate sauce. As we are ready to tuck into our main course, the tart enters the oven for 45 minutes.
Good conversation and new friends broaden our horizons and confirm that the world is a wonderful place to live in. I look at those two unexpected strangers that share their stories and time with us at our intimate gathering. I admire their ventures. I will not reveal anything about Trevor’s design project but I am sure it will be a big and much sought after success. Don’t forget that I would love to test it on my bicycle Trevor!
Hannah’s current job is to interview people and through documenting the lives and work to trace the living history of places. Her work in various interesting documentaries and programmes fascinates me and so does her anthropology background and past work with women with HIV in Africa. Her genuine interest in sustainability, arts and the world makes me hopeful and inspired. And I have not even started on her warmth that wins you over instantaneously.
Dan’s Big Little City project joins our conversation and together with his contagious authenticity and enthusiasm it adds to the recipe of a good night.
Between conversations and stories, we clean up our main course and devour our slices of chocolate and pear tart. We indulge in good food and company and feed on the positive energy. And hoping that our quartet meets again, we part to dream wonderful dreams.